From Hong Kong, shouts from the abyss to Japan and the world

Hong Kong’s political leadership (or lack thereof) and police force have embarked on an inexplicable, and perhaps unstoppable, journey of self-destruction. On Friday afternoon, the Chief Executive, with calculating authoritarian cowardice, went with the ‘nuclear option’: an emergency law banning protestors from covering their faces. But, she said, Hong Kong was not in a state of emergency. “Hong Kong remains an international financial centre and the best place to do business,” the government doublethinks, as it let its employees leave work early, police threatened to kill journalists past midnight, and the downtown core descended into chaos.

So what is Hong Kong’s endgame? In between Brexit, Trump/Ukraine, the brutal protests in Iraq, and anything else on the news cycle conveyor belt, such is the question many people outside of Hong Kong ask. Or, more realistically, the question people in Hong Kong would like those outside Hong Kong to ask.

The tragedy is that, as I have written about earlier, all Hong Kong people can do is try to get people outside of Hong Kong to care. This week, I stumbled upon an Instagram account, maintained by a Japanese-speaking Hong Kong person, curating, in lucid Japanese, a digital Lennon Wall of police brutality and executive stupidity. This account also calls out people on the Japanese Internet for what it thinks are mis-interpretations of what protestors are doing.

In the rapidly changing Cantonese vernacular, the Instagram account is a form of 文宣 (man syun), a term once used to describe Communist Chinese propaganda, but now borrowed to describe the rainbow sticky note wallpapers that have blossomed throughout the city. But I would think that it is a mental eruption of the pain, a shout in the darkness for those who are willing to listen, in whatever language, and wherever in the world––and not many people do. After all, in the past four months, this is all people have looked at on their phones, whether at home and in their daily hour-long commutes. The Lennon Walls are a collective, desperate search to rationalize the unthinkable and the unforgivable, a prayer circle to meditate on their fears, and to marinate on their vexations.

Screenshot 2019-10-04 at 8.49.04 PM
One person’s Japanese-language shout into the darkness.

Consider, for example, the fact that protestors have started to exact wanton vandalism of businesses and urban furniture every weekend, if not every night. The Instagram account I mentioned earlier says that the smashed-up stores of Genki Sushi are not signs that the protestors are anti-Japanese terrorists (反日テロリスト), but a targeted response to a company half-owned by a family who thinks it is a good idea to suck up to China in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council:

元気寿司、一風堂、スタバ、Shake Shackなどは美心(マキシム)グループという香港の会社が運営しています。日本側が運営している訳ではないです。

Genki Sushi, Ippudo Ramen, Starbucks, and Shake Shack are all run by a “Hong Kong” company. Genki Sushi is not run by a Japanese company.


The daughter of [the founder of] Maxims says that she is part of the faction that supports China and is suffering under the unending protests.

As million-man marches and placards gave way to Molotov cocktails and rubber bullets, we would like to believe that we still direct our rage with surgical precision. We mess up Genki Sushi, but leave everything else alone, because we believe the company behind discount conveyor belt sushi is symptomatic of the big business plutocracy that has aided and abetted the taxpayer-funded tyranny that we live in. Or that’s what we would like people outside Hong Kong to believe in.

But people might tune into TBS News in Tokyo and see this:

TBS News.

Moving pictures of shattered glass and jet-black spray paint speak louder than hundred-thousand word dissertations about being born in a famous city on the edge of empires. People could sit in lecture halls and reading rooms all day about whether one’s net asset worth is directly proportional to the level of antagonism one holds about Carrie Lam, how pro-government political parties systematically engineer elections to return a majority of seats despite holding only a minority level of popular support, and how an impossible postcolonial bargain made between the United Kingdom and great and almighty People’s Republic has systematically deprived an entire generation of millennials in the city––those without wealth and connections to leave for good if they could––of any hope for their futures. But no one has the time to learn.

Indeed, pictures of burning shopfronts, however unrepresentative those environments are about Hong Kong, make for dramatic headlines. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and so many pixels on a screen, so news outlets do what they can to keep you not necessarily informed, but definitely entertained. And so people watch the mass media cover the Hong Kong protests, and they are scared.

Last week, a Japanese friend I met at Georgetown messaged me. She was going up to Mainland China for a leisure trip, and was transiting through Hong Kong to get on a high speed train up north. And she seemed relieved to see me. It’s always good to have a local friend to guide you around, she said. Which is true. I had a great time with her and some other Waseda friends eating yakitori in Shinjuku when I visited her last summer. But it was her first time going to a place where she didn’t speak the language, and she was concerned that the metro system would close down at any time. “Is it safe for normal travelers to wander around?” she asked. I said she would be fine. Just take the Airport Express to the high speed rail station and we can grab lunch.

The day after a police officer almost murdered an 18 year old boy, we met up in Elements, a luxury mall atop the Airport Express station. The sun was shining, the shops were open, and we made our way to lunch. We snuck in our cups of bubble tea into a crowded branch of Tim Ho Wan, and I ordered some shrimp dumplings and a bowl of preserved egg and pork congee, among other things, to share. She said that she needed to exchange some renminbi, but the rates at the train station were awful. I said I knew a place that had great exchange rates by Chungking Mansions, and said it would be a 10 minute taxi ride away. She said it was okay. She had a train to catch, and the money she was losing to the currency exchange cum highway robbery shop was, she said, her own anyway. Perhaps staying in Hong Kong scared her, and she was too kind to tell me.

This is the anxiety that Carrie Lam is hoping to cultivate among people outside of Hong Kong. They ask: is Hong Kong still good enough of a place to park my money without anyone asking me weird questions? To mingle with the lost expatriate nomads of the world? To place to wine and dine in luxurious skyscrapers? It is these questions that Carrie Lam wishes to present to the city’s youth: why do you wish to wilfully and recklessly fail to “treasure” the things that make you rich? But I would believe that most Hong Kong millennials care little for their material concerns. After all, they never benefited from an oligarchic system that privileged so few.

At what cost should Hong Kong’s protest movement convince the world that they should not be on Carrie Lam’s side? A few weeks ago, I heard about people folding senbazuru––a thousand origami cranes in hope of peace––inside shopping malls. I searched on Twitter to see if anyone was tweeting about it. You can do a search too, and you’ll find that not many people on Japanese Twitter care. But this person called Suzuko Hirano does:

Who is Suzuko Hirano? Her Instagram account shows her bravely lecturing people in Tokyo about Hong Kong in a kimono. Her photos are awash her comments from Hong Kong thanking her for her support. As Hirano told a website called Japan Forward, which describes her as a “Yamato nadeshiko (the personification of an idealized Japanese woman)” (the brackets are part and parcel of the website’s description):

The world is currently at a turning point. Are we going to live in a peaceful, free world, or one in which freedom of expression is lost?

Now is the time for me to stand up and fight. I will continue to fight for Hong Kong in Japan. Because I love Hong Kong, because I love Japan. I will not hide my face or name, and I will give my all to defending this country.

To everyone in the world: stand up and fight, for freedom, for the next generation. 

I hope you will be courageous and brave. We will stand and defend Hong Kong together.

Hold on. What has being an idealized Japanese woman got to do with supporting protests for Hong Kong? Whose freedom of expression is being attacked? If one loves Japan, must one love Hong Kong, and vice versa? Why does Hirano care so much?

Pull the wool from our eyes and you’ll see that Japan Forward is run by the Sankei Shimbun, whose raison d’etre is to whitewash Japan’s WWII military aggression and military prostitution in a better light. Scroll down a bit further on Hirano’s Instagram account and you’ll find creeping signs of her political affiliation: a show of gratitude to the souls who sacrificed their lives for peace in Yasukuni Shrine; a book recommendation on how great Japan is, which she says no Japanese person is no longer willing to appreciate because of GHQ’s “War Guilt Information Program” after Japan surrendered. As Au Loong-yu writes in Ming Pao:

Support of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement from people like Hirano only serves to support their imperialist and militaristic interpretation of history, as well as their propagandic rhetoric concerning China’s imminent invasion of Japan. If you’re not on the far-right, and yet uncritically share the news that Hirano supports Hong Kong, it is possible that you’ve cultivated a relationship with the wrong ally.

(Translated from the Chinese by Lausan.)

So who can we find as allies? Probably not Shinzo Abe, who desperately wants a fresh start to Sino-Japanese relations, and was a world leader who expressed his congratulations to Xi Jinping on the 70th anniversary of the vindication of Mao’s China. And probably not Hirano, whose support for Hong Kong is aligned with the slimiest elements of Japan’s conservative establishment. Our allies are, sadly, our own selves.

All things good and bad come to an end. These protests will end someday, somehow. And just as we come crying out of vaginas, so too do we meet our deaths, eventually, and alone. When that days comes for the Chief Executive, Jesus Christ will remind her what she did that hot and humid summer. Drunk on the forbidden fruit of power, she did something wrong, refused to admit that she did so, and then proceeded to summarily punish each and every person who had the right to, and indeed was correct to, call her out on what she did wrong.